When the farmers’ march began in Nashik on March 6, at the forefront was 60-year old Rukmabai Bendkule from Dondegaon village in Dindori taluka, dancing robustly with a red flag in hand. Many thousands of other women farmers walked in the march to Mumbai, across 180 kilometres, some without  chappals in the harsh heat, some with children and grandchildren who could not be left behind. 

Adivasi women farmers from Nashik, Palghar, Dahanu, Ahmednagar and other districts, along with women farmers from Marathwada and Vidarbha, were at the morcha in large numbers.  Adivasi women cultivators are almost always from families with very small landholdings, so most of them also work as agricultural labourers on others’ farms. By participating in the week-long march, all of them lost a fourth of their modest monthly income.  

“Most of the work in agriculture (sowing, transplantation, harvesting, threshing, crop transportation from field to home, food processing and also dairying) is done by women,” points out P. Sainath, founder editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. “But – against the legal position – we deny women ownership rights in land and do not accept them as farmers.”   

The march, organised by the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, brought farmers, both women and men, onto the streets to demand their rights, including the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which will give them ownership of the farmland they have been tilling for decades. 

We profile some of the women cultivators here. 

A woman and her grandson
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge
A young boy
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

Sushila Nagle, 67, had an extra responsibility that week.  Her 10-year old grandson Samarth was with her on the morcha. “His parents [who work as farm labourers and cultivate paddy and other crops on the family’s two acres] are out of town,” she said. “I left another grandson with a relative, but this one is very mischievous. So I took him along. There was no question of missing the rally.” Sushila is  from Sawarpada village of Trimbakeshwar taluka in Nashik district. Throughout the arduous journey, “he cried just once,” she says, as a curious Samarth peeks into my notebook. “I am really proud of him, to have walked so much.” 

A woman in a sari with the pallu over her head
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

Why did Sushila refuse to even consider missing the march when there was nobody back home to look after Samarth? Kusum Bachaw and Geeta Gaikwad, both from the same village, standing with her at Azad Maidan, answer the question. “We are not fond of walking for a week in the hot sun,” says Geeta, who, like Sushila and Kusum, belongs to the Koli Mahadev Adivasi community. “We have been tilling the farmland for decades. It is time we get ownership of it. We won’t rest until we get what is ours.”

A woman sitting by a tree in a blue sari
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

Savita Lilake, in her 40s, has come with her husband, leaving their farm behind. “Nobody is looking after it right now,” she says. Savita, from Ambegaon village of Dindori taluka in Nashik district, is also a Koli Mahadev. “The house is locked. We have three acres of land on which we cultivate wheat and groundnut. But there is constant insecurity that it will be taken away from us. In neighbouring villages, forest officials have dug up farmlands to plant trees. Because we don’t own the land, we are at the mercy of forest [department] officials.” 

A woman marching alongside other people, holding a flag
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

When the march began in Nashik, 60-year old Rukmabai Bendkule was at the forefront – dancing robustly with a red flag in hand. Rukmabai, a Koli Mahadev, is a farm labourer from Dondegaon village in Dindori taluka. She earns Rs. 200 a day working three days a week – six days on the road is a loss of at least a valuable Rs. 600 for her. “Even though I do not cultivate any crops, if the farmers in my village lose their land [to the forest department], I lose work,” she says. But will the government budge, I ask her. “Do they have an option?” she smiles. 

A woman standing at Azad Maidan
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

Mathura Jadhav, from Aghai village of Shahapur taluka in Thane district, is from the Warli tribe. She joined the rally on the third day, and walked for four days to Mumbai. “I suffered cramps during the journey,” she says. “I had to take medicines [painkillers].”

A group of women, including Shantabai Waghmare, 50, eating lunch
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

Many Adivasi farmers cultivate paddy, which requires a lot of water. In the absence of proper irrigation, they have to depend on the monsoons. Shantabai Waghmare, 50, from Ambegaon village of Nashik district, belongs to the Warli tribal community. She says farming is becoming ever more difficult due to erratic rains, and tells me to buzz off when I ask if I may take a photo. Like many farmers at Azad Maidan in south Mumbai, she too is exhausted and annoyed by the cameras. Here, Shantabai is sitting with a group of other farmers at the maidan.

A woman marching alongside others, holding a red flag and a plastic bottle in her hand
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

Sindhubai Palve, in her 50s, from the Koli Mahadev community, had come from Surgana taluka’s Karvad hamlet. She says, “The river project will eat into the land in Surgana [and will displace Adivasi farmers].” Kisan Sabha president Ashok Dhawale told me that the government, in future, plans to lift water from several rivers (including the Nar-Par rivers in Gujarat, the Wagh tributary of the Damanganga in Gujarat that flows through Nashik district, and the Pinjal tributary of the Vaitarna in Nashik and Palghar). Lifting the water is possible only with dams on those rivers, which could submerge villages in these districts.

A woman with her head covered standing at Somaiya ground, Mumbai, at night
PHOTO • Shrirang Swarge

I met Kamalabai Gaikwad, 65, a Koli Mahadev Adivasi, just before midnight of March 11 in Mumbai, as she walked up to a van distributing painkillers. “There is no other way to continue,” she smiled. She had walked barefoot from Nashik district’s Dindori village. The next day when I saw her, she was wearing chappals, a little too big for her worn-out feet, but still, some footwear in the blistering heat. “Someone gave these to me this morning,” she said.

Shrirang Swarge

Shrirang Swarge is an independent photographer and social media professional from Mumbai.

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Parth M.N.

Parth M.N. is a 2017 PARI Fellow. He is a special correspondent for India with the 'Los Angeles Times' and freelances at various online portals. He loves cricket and travelling.

Other stories by Parth M.N.